Missoula County, Lolo National Forest move fire danger to “high;” Bitterroot to follow

As the summer slides into mid-July, it’s bringing the warmer, drier conditions that increase fire danger. As a result, Missoula County has pushed its fire danger to “high.”

With the exception of a few hot days, the Missoula Valley has basked in nice, relatively cool weather interspersed with the occasional rainstorm through June and the first half of July. It’s been nothing like the heat wave experienced this weekend by the rest of the country.

We’ve dodged the higher temperatures and dry air that were predicted a month ago for July and August in western Montana. At least for July, we have a 33% chance of being cooler than average. However, the National Weather Service’s three-month outlook gives us a 50% chance of being warmer and drier than normal through the end of September.

So August isn’t looking good and we’re entering the most dangerous time of year for wildfire.

That’s why Missoula County upped its fire danger from “moderate” to “high.”

When fire danger is “high,” fires can start easily from most causes because small fuels such as grasses and needles have dried out enough that they will ignite readily. Unattended campfires and trash fires are likely to escape. Fires spread easily and can become difficult to control unless they are put out while they are still small.

The Lolo National Forest has also moved its fire danger to “high,” while the Bitterroot National Forest still rates its danger as “moderate.” But that’s likely to change soon.

As a result, forest visitors will begin to see active patrols around campgrounds and other popular camping spots as firefighters return from an active fire season in Arizona to gear up for the Northern Rockies.

Recent lightning storms have ignited a dozen fires in the area, but fortunately, the forest fuels haven’t really dried out yet. That’s why the fire danger was considered moderate until now. So the fires really never took off, and initial attack crews have held the fires to less than an acre.

But with so many tourists and Montanans getting out to recreate during the pandemic, land managers are more concerned about human-caused fires. Public lands employees have seen an increase in abandoned campfires. The Lolo National Forest reported 22 out of 23 fires that were human-caused prior to the 4th of July.

This is a concerning trend as conditions will get hotter and drier in the coming weeks. As an alternative to campfires, the public is encouraged to use camp stoves. If campfires are used, they should be contained preferably within metal fire rings, and they should never be left unattended.

So far, the closest large fire is the Lost Creek Fire, first reported a month ago 25 miles west of Cody, Wyo., on the east edge of Yellowstone National Park. It burned almost 600 acres but was fully contained by June 22.